Understanding Photographic Image Stabilization – A Beginner’s Guide

IS illustration

Photographic IS (Image Stabilization) has been around for more than 20 years. SLR camera shake correction began with Canon. The worlds first optical image stabilizer for 35mm SLR cameras was introduced in the EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens in 1995. Since then, Canon and other manufactures have made continual advancements in stabilization systems to enhance panning capability and improve compensation for camera shake.

The First Image Stabilization – I Was There

(Yes, I am that old!)

I was in Hawaii the week the Canon 75-300 f/4-5.6 IS lens started shipping. I had been shooting almost exclusively with a Hasselblad 501C3 medium format camera. I owned an older Olympus film camera and a Canon EOS film camera but didn’t use either all that often. When I found out about the stabilized lens, I was very intrigued. I needed something to photograph surfers and bought the IS lens at a Honolulu camera store. I haven’t looked back. Since then, I have used stabilized lenses whenever possible. Pretty soon it was the Hasselblad that started sitting on my shelf and the Canon SLR with IS lens that I took out on jobs. To think it’s come as far as it has in 20 years is pretty impressive.

Different Approaches To A Stable Shot

Many forms of image stabilization exist, and in several different brands.

Fuji calls it OIS (Optical Image Stabilization.)
Sigma calls it OS (Optical Stabilizer.)
Nikon calls it VR (Vibration Reduction.)
Canon & Olympus call it IS (Image Stabilization)

Some companies put the stabilization in the camera body while most DSLRs use in-lens stabilization.

Olympus has stabilized lenses AND camera bodies. Not all are compatible, but when they are, the company calls their combined stabilization “5-axis Sync IS” or simply “Sync IS.”

These systems all have one thing in common. They exist to defeat camera shake. Camera shake is camera movement while capturing an image on an imaging device or film. A certain amount of camera movement is inevitable during handheld shooting, and the resulting blur is easier to spot at longer focal lengths and when using lower shutter speeds.

Picture of IS switch on lens

Even pictures that look sharp in the cameras display may turn out blurred when printed. To effectively compensate for the camera shake, most camera and lens manufacturers offer some sort of image stabilizer. If you’ve never used stabilization you should know that shooting in low-light, using large, long, telephoto lenses or shooting with slower shutter speeds without a tripod are all situations where stabilization helps.

Stabilization relies on a special mechanism that corrects camera shake with technology rather than technique. Stabilization can greatly expanded the range of practical uses for handheld and even tripod-based shooting.

Problems With Camera Shake

Camera shake blur may not be apparent in postcard-sized prints, but it becomes clearly evident as print size increases. Stabilizers can accurately compensate for even the slightest camera shake.

I used to prefer in-lens stabilization which uses technology including sensors, actuators and an optical correction system. Now that I use Olympus cameras, I am a convert to in-body-image-stabilization (IBIS) especially when it’s paired with an IS lens (sync IS on Olympus.)

IS Diagram

More On How Stabilizers Work

Camera shake causes lens movement during image exposure, which shifts the angle of incoming light relative to the optical axis and results in blurred images. IS Lenses correct for camera shake by shifting certain optical components in inverse relation to the lens movement. This maintains the position of incoming light rays on the film or capturing element and helps prevent blur caused by camera shake.

In the old days, Canon claimed two-stops of stabilization but really, most people saw about 1.5 stops improvement at best. Initial IS systems could not be used on tripods. The latest editions of IS technology deliver better performance and some can be used on or off a tripod. In the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens that I use, paired with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera I get at least six to six point five (6.5) full stops – thanks to Sync IS. Based on my experience and personal testing, this offers the most stabilization of any hand-held digital camera. *As of 2018.

Conventional image stabilizers of the type found in modern IS lenses incorporate a vibration gyro (angular velocity sensor) to compensate for angle camera shake. Based on the amount of camera shake detected by the sensor, the IS system calculates the amount of shake on the image plane. Lens elements in the IS are then positioned to compensate for the camera shake.

The Benefits/Costs Of In-Lens Stabilization

You may have noticed that (especially in Micro Four Thirds cameras) that some camera manufacturers use in-camera stabilization. This offers the benefit of allowing all images to be stabilized. It also keeps costs down. Some cameras use only in-lens stabilization. This means you have to purchase the specific stabilized lens to get a stabilized image. This is more expensive.

Every lens is different, and features different optical designs. In order to fit these lenses with IS, the optical correction systems and controlling mechanisms must be customized for each individual lens model.

When developing camera shake correction technology, camera manufacturers must consider various issues, including how to compensate for both drastic and subtle camera shake and how to prepare for future digital SLR camera advances. If the stabilization is in the lens, advancements in technology allow for better correction. The down-side is that this costs the photographer more money.

Picture of two eagles diving for a fish made by Scott Bourne
I made this image while standing on the deck of a moving boat. The stabilization in the Olympus camera helped me to freeze the action and get a sharp image, despite camera shake.

I made this image while standing on the deck of a moving boat. The stabilization in the Olympus camera helped me to freeze the action and get a sharp image, despite camera shake.


Image stabilization has come a long way. And it has saved my bacon more times than I can count. If you own stabilized cameras or lenses, its absolutely worth your time to read the manuals and learn the functions and proper use of this technology. The difference could be a sharp image or an out-of-focus image.

(NOTE: This post isn’t intended to be a white paper on IS. It’s just a nod to the tech and a very brief, layman’s attempt to explain a complicated feature that many photographers don’t quite understand. I hope you found it helpful.)

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